The Sweet Life of Nadine Donovan

A Valentine’s Q&A with Pastry Chef Nadine Donovan

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Pastry Chef Nadine Donovan leads dessert teams at Ace Eat Serve, Vesta Dipping Grill and Steuben’s. Photo by Paul Miller

You could say Donovan was born a pastry chef. Her youngest memories are learning how to make puff pastry with her mother, who ran her own pastry shop in Canada. As a child, she remembers playing with friends in the kitchen, pretending it was her job. Today, it is.

Born near Ontario, Donovan grew up in Denver and is now one of the state’s most respected pastry pros. After helping to open Old Major, she has lead the dessert teams at Steuben’s, Ace Eat Serve and Vesta Dipping Grill for the past year, and is known for treating pastry-making like a work of art, bringing a creative, innovative approach to the kitchen. She also knows the value of good chocolate, which is why we sat down with her to talk about all things sweet in honor of Valentine’s Day.

What is it about pastries that has always attracted you?

One piece is the creative part. I’ve never been good at painting or drawing—I have trouble translating that vision from my mind to the paper. With food, it’s a natural connection where I can create art in a different sense. What I love most about pastry is it’s its own special, little niche. There are so many savory chefs out there, and a lot of times dessert is an afterthought. I like to specialize and bring something different to the Denver dining scene.

What’s your favorite dessert—to eat?

The Lemon Icebox Bar at Steuben’s. It’s a play on an old-school dessert, old-American nostalgia. It’s frozen lemon mousse, ginger crumble, blackberry compote and toasted meringue, and I can’t get enough of it. It’s definitely my favorite, if I have to pick one. It’s a well-rounded dining experience, like, “This reminds me of something out of my grandma’s fridge.”

What is your proudest accomplishment on the job?

Two years ago, I was chosen for the Denver Five, a group of five chefs every year that get to represent Colorado at the James Beard House in New York. The year I did it, it was all female chefs, so we got to represent Colorado and girl power. The James Beard House has so much history and pride, and to have the opportunity to cook there? Wow.

What’s the hardest part of your job?

The constant demand for creativity is the best part of the job and can also be a challenge. When you’re working at three restaurants, trying to constantly plan them all, you can burn out a bit. I refocus by traveling and getting inspired again. Across the U.S., there are so many amazing chefs—in San Francisco and New York. I try to take two trips a year to go eat somewhere interesting.

What’s on the horizon?

We are getting ready to open a new Steuben’s in Arvada; we’re shooting for March. We will open a Steuben’s ice cream program, where we will be making all ice cream in-house, constantly changing the flavors and keeping it playful.

Any special desserts on the menu for Valentine’s Day?

Vesta just brought back its sticky toffee pudding, but we reinvented it as a gingerbread version: gingerbread hot toffee served with fig ice cream and beautiful ginger chips on top to enhance that ginger. I love it, because you have the sweetness from the dates and the toffee and this earthy sensation from the fig ice cream. It helps balance it, instead of just sweet on sweet. Soon, we will start a custom-chocolate program at Ace, with Asian-flavored chocolates. As we know, Asian desserts don’t really exist, beyond a fortune cookie and a slice of orange. I’m trying to find fun ways to integrate the Asian flavors into modern American desserts, like truffles and bonbons.

What is it about chocolate that works so well on Valentine’s Day?

I think there
is this sort of exotic richness to chocolate that creates a natural sensuality. It’s expensive, it coats your mouth, it’s from somewhere you don’t really know about. How many people know what a cacao bean looks like? There’s darkness and mystery and richness to chocolate that accentuates the romantic vibe.

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